When the guy on the next barstool tells you a story, he starts at the beginning, hits stride in the middle, and has a big finish waiting at the end. If he started in the middle and backtracked to the beginning, you’d drift away and start counting the swizzlesticks, or something. He understands this: Why have professional storytellers forgotten it? Or has it become irredeemably square to tell a story in a linear fashion? I’m not arguing that every story needs to be linear, but I find it annoying that so many books and films are now burdened with flashbacks and fractured time frames that add nothing to the story. Today’s filmmaker, handed the script for “Gunga Din,” would no doubt turn in something resembling “Rashomon.”
Last year, I enjoyed and admired “Michael Clayton,” but questioned the need to open the film with a scene replayed near the end. Did writer/director Tony Gilroy fear he’d lose the audience if something didn’t blow up real good right after the opening credits? As it turns out, Gilroy was just getting warmed up. His new film, “Duplicity,” keeps interrupting itself for flashbacks that are meant to deepen the intrigue, but serve only to push the movie’s running time past the two-hour mark. (My dismay increased every time some variation of LISBON: 6 MONTHS AGO flashed on screen.) At ninety minutes, you might’ve enjoyed a timely update of screwball comedy; at two hours plus, this strange mash-up of “Last Year At Marienbad” and a caper film exhausts the audience’s good will.
Then again, perhaps I’m too focused on a pet peeve, and being too hard on Gilroy, and the real problem with “Duplicity” is that the genre setting it shares with “Michael Clayton” -- the world of corporate espionage -- simply feels inconsequential when the stakes are less than mortal. The whole sub-genre of the corporate-espionage tale may well be played out, frankly. Seeing Cold War tradecraft employed in this manner has begun to seem (to me, anyway) reductive and banal. In the novels of John LeCarre, for instance, when Smiley and Karla spar, it’s thrilling and awful, and there is the spectre of a mushroom cloud in the air. Gilroy is smart and skillful, and he can get you just as excited about beauty products -- but he lets the film drag on long enough that you have time to remind yourself: They’re beauty products.